For 14 years, the Kearny Junior Police Academy has worked with countless numbers of young people between the ages of 11 and 13. Some have actually gone on to become police officers, though not all. But if there’s one thing universal, many kids come in hesitant about having to spend two weeks of their summers with members of the KPD’s Community Oriented Policing unit.
But by the time those two weeks are over, they want more, they want to come weekends, they want to go through the academy again — and it’s an experience that changes the youngsters’ lives forever.
We’ve often told you about presenters we’ve observed, but this year, we’re going to tell the story about the four officers who ran the 2023 version of the academy, which has grown exponentially since it kicked off back in 2009.
Meet (or re-meet) Sgts. Adriano Marks (the unit’s commander) and Jack Grimm (who was for a long time a COP member and who was asked to come back this summer to run the academy) and Officers Vanessa Sevillano who has been doing this for several years and Ryan Brady, who just completed his first year in COP and leading the JPA.
We had a chance to sit down with all four Friday, Aug. 11, at the Juvenile Aid Bureau at KPD Headquarters. And while we’ve known all four officers for a good chunk of time, learning what they do to make this academy run like clockwork was nothing short of spectacular.
Before we get into that, however, keep a few things in mind.
This year’s academy had 52 cadets. That’s 52 kids aged 11 to 13. In the warmest month of the year. While others kids are out of school and in full-on recreation mode. Marques, Grimm, Sevillano and Brady are charged with keeping them all in order, disciplined, entertained, learning, under all those aforementioned conditions.
And somehow, they make it look so easy.
The academy prep begins before the summer months with an application process the kids must fill out on their own. It’s open to any Kearny youth in that age group, regardless of where they go to school. That application process is the first indication as to who will and won’t get chosen to participate. Keep this in mind — they accepted a few over 50 kids.
There were 90 some-odd applications.
Will they fill out the paper work entirely? Will they include the required photograph with their application? (Those who don’t are nearly always disqualified from the get-go.)
Once it all falls into place, however, that’s when the hard work gets started.
“When I was relatively new here to the police department, my son, Jack, was part of the junior police academy’s first Class of 2009,” Grimm said. “I saw what the guys who ran it at the time did with him and I was lucky enough to get moved here (from patrol) to the unit after that and I have been involved ever since. I think it’s a great program and we talk all the time time about discipline. Not the way the word is as in bad, but in the discipline the kids get that teaches them the structure in their lives and we get such a great improvement as the time goes on and that is what I really enjoy about it — how the kids are better when they’re done with the two weeks.”
Marques agreed and took it a step further.
“The self-control aspect to it — we stress self-control, to respect the person to your right, to your left, work as a group because we are only as strong as our weakest link,” Marques said. “Those are the things we try to instill and I came in and Jack was already running this in 2015 and I stood by as a bystander and it is so nice to see how the kids gravitate to the instructors. They may not like us the first, second, day, then they rethink their decision to join the academy. But toward the end, how they gravitated to us, the cards we get at the end — incredible.”
That gravitation, though in theory only lasts two weeks, is actually eternal. When the graduated cadets see the four on the streets and not in academy setting, they form what Marques calls their “Cheering Section,” because the kids are actually thrilled to see them. That’s not always the case with young people and the police. But for the 50+ kids this year and the program’s older alums, it’s evident.
“They see us as human beings, not just the portrayal of the hard-nosed police officer with a badge and gun — they see us as humans, we can joke, we can discipline.”
Sevillano built on that, too.
At first, she says, “They don’t know what to expect and then that first day’s like, ‘wow,’ for them, and the transformation we see from Day 1 all the way to Day 9 (of 9 days) — even the parents are like, ‘This is amazing’ and some parents say ‘Can you guys come home with us?’ They see how their children are and whether they’re 11 or 13, they all act up ending same at the end and they see us for who we are.”
Sevillano says the cadets often want to know what life is like for the officers outside of work — and this is a great chance for the instructors to demonstrate how great life as a cop can be.
“They know we’re humans and not just these mean people,” she said. “Yes, we show them this is how it is going to be for the next two weeks, but in life, whatever path they take, they’re not going to be as shocked about how things should be done. …In the beginning we tell them they might not want to come back the second or the third day, but by the end of the program, they’re going to want another week.”
And sure enough that’s what happened. Consider this. In an informal poll, when asked, 95% of the cadets said they didn’t want to come back after the second or third days of the program. Then when asked, “Who would do this for another week, every single hand shot up in the air. They wanted another week. More than a week, perhaps.
“The really even asked if they could come on the weekends,” Sevillano said.
If that doesn’t speak volumes to the effectiveness of the JPA, find me what does.
Brady, meanwhile, has been on the job for five or so years, but in that time, he had no idea what actually went down with the JPA. “It was out of sight, out of mind,” he said.
“But to see how the kids transformed from Day 1 is everything,” Brady said. “They’ll say, ‘Officer Brady, I couldn’t do a pushup the first day, and I did one today’ and that’s everything. And I always stress, I am not looking for perfect, I’m looking for progress. I tell them I don’t want you to be perfect. But I want you to get better every day in some aspect.”
How about this for progress.
There are actually seven kids who started a text chain and who would work out, each and every day, after the academy, before they’d go to sleep.
Marques, meanwhile, said he believes the notion of the old “Blue Wall” between the police and residents has slowly disappeared and because of it, it makes the JPA so much easier not just for the cadets, but for their families and the community at-large. That all stems, he says, from the overwhelming support the officers get from Chief George King, Deputy Chief Scott Macfie and retired Chief John P. Dowie, among others.
“They’re all big proponents of this and of community as a whole,” he said.
Speaking of community, the quartet says the support they get from businesses, whether it’s in donating food, water, you name it, is second to none. And let’s not also forget the PBA and FMBA also paid for a dunk tank so Brady could get soaked and so they kids could enjoy Mr. Softee on the academy’s penultimate day.
In all, in such a short period of time, these kids’ lives are transformed, forever changed for the better and it’s such a bright spot in a world often marred by darkness.
“We all love what we do and it shows in the reaction of the cadets,” Sevillano said.
She couldn’t have put it better than that.
Learn more about the writer ...
Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.